Do you need trust to challenge?

22nd April 2024 |   Scott Waugh

In this dissertation from an MA SALES MANAGEMENT programme in 2017-18, the author explores the extent to which trust is important when applying the Challenger Selling approach.


Challenger Selling was a new sales approach that was popularised in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article by Matthew Dixon and Brett Adamson. They published the Challenger Sale book in 2011, and this sales model was widely adopted as a business-to-business (B2B) selling practice by many organisations looking for a new selling advantage.

However, this paper suggests that the Challenger sales approach disregards “trust” or relationship. Here, the author draws on semi-structured telephone interviews of 20 relevant participants disclosing their experiential reflections and opinions of trust in selling phenomena. Interpretation of the findings deduce that the interdependence of trust and relationships in selling both aligns and contests the central premise of the Challenger sales approach.

This research provides commentary to the Challenger selling approach of Dixon and Adamson (2011) in that, where it may be agreed that a pre-existing relationship or trust are not essential to influence a transaction, rather a salesperson’s knowledge, credibility and organisational reputation are offered as fundamental pre-requisites in positive vendor selection.

By contrast, this research also found that trusted relationships are deemed necessary to sustain longer-term repeat purchases from the same customer; however, it may be viewed a customer’s prerogative to forge a dyadic relationship primarily based on their perceived value and commitment of the salesperson and competitive advantage obtainable from the supplier organisation’s appetite to meet the customer’s needs.

The Challenger Sale (hereafter Challenger) is a selfconsidered advancement in value-based selling (Dixon and Adamson, 2011). The approach caught the critical attention of the selling profession and academia (Rapp, Bachrach, Panagopoulos, and Ogilvie, 2014), primarily in its bold assertion that traditional Relationship Selling is redundant, in favour of a knowledge-based selling approach centred upon three main behavioural constructs: “Teach for Difference, Tailor for Resonance and Take Control” (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011, p. 26).

Dixon and Adamson (2011) position Challenger as a knowledge-based selling approach advancing Solution Selling and reason that the buyer-seller dyadic relationship as the de facto measure of customer satisfaction is over-emphasised (Meehan and Wright, 2013). They contend that organisations that had adopted relationship-based selling programmes have failed to deliver as expected, resulting in programmes producing “passive sellers” who avoid conflict – wrongly assuming it will damage the customer relationship, reducing customer satisfaction and sales performance (Zboja, Clark, and Haytko, 2016).

Instead, the supposed empirical research [not obtainable for reference] of the Challenger approach by Dixon and Adamson (2011), centres upon the main argument that a dyadic relationship is not required to generate value. Rather, such relationships are “a reward” (Foreword by Rackham, N M; Dixon and Adamson, 2011) achieved by improving the customer’s business through knowledge exchange based on convincing insights that promise wholesale business improvement, wherein the failure to inspire is a failure to add value (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011).

Transactional sales
In agreement with transaction cost economic theory (Williamson, 1993) and Rackham (1999), the buyer’s intrinsic value driver from a product or service is in efficiently securing the best market price and not in the salesperson’s direct involvement (Rackham and De Vincentis, 1999, p 88), reinforcing Dixon’s (2011) central theme in Challenger that not all customers require a relationship with suppliers (Moncrief, 2017; Palmatier, Scheer, Evans, and Arnold, 2008) – a logic that may fit transactional purchases, where buyers segment vendors into commodity categories judged on risk to buyer or supply scarcity (Kraljic, 1983). The salesperson’s contribution is in communicating the extrinsic value embedded in the brand that defines offer boundaries and irrespective of the need for individual dyadic relationships (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011; Moncrief, 2017; Tescari and Ledur Brito, 2016).

This study shows that customer confidence builds trust over time, which develops into a relationship that provides a competitive advantage for both customer and salesperson.

In further support of Dixon and Adamson’s (2011) view that the buyer-seller dyadic relationship is unimportant (Meehan and Wright, 2013), research shows that transactional buyers depend on competitive market pressures to drive innovations and choice (Ganesan, 1994), using objective purchase evaluation to negate perceived losses (Doney and Cannon, 1997) and extending institutional trust to the supplier’s organisational brand and their ability to deliver the product/ service at a sufficient quality to perform its required function (Vargo and Lusch, 2004).

Compared with prior selling methods, the Challenger approach provides adopters with a fresh perspective and long view of the validity and credibility of the sales profession in a marketing period of uncertainty. Although, where trust and commitment are considered the foundations of relationships (L Ryals and Davies, 2013; Spekman and Carraway, 2006), Morgan and Hunt (1994) recommend that commitment and trust form relationships. As such it may be considered that where there is trust or commitment, there is – by proxy – a relationship. Insofar as Dixon and Adamson (2011) claim a relationship is not required for the Challenger approach to be applicable, by definition, they declare that trust is equally non-essential.

While the research literature on trust in selling are well explained, there is seemingly minimal – if any – empirical evidence reporting the extent to which trusted relationships or organisational brand loyalty are required for the Challenger technique to be a viable selling approach. This suggests an exploration of experienced sales and procurement professionals could disclose new perspectives in this area.

Research aims and objectives

By addressing these research questions, the aim of this study is to explore the role of Trust in the Challenger Selling approach and its viability as a selling method:

  • RQ1: Explore to what extent is trust important when applying the Challenger approach.
  • RQ2: Explore the applicability of the Challenger approach when pre-existing corporate reputation is present.
  • RQ3: Explore the customer’s perception of trust of known and unknown salespeople attempting to apply the Challenger approach.

Literature review summary

It would appear Challenger is diametric to the field-proven results of solution-selling, axing the necessity for relationship in favour of knowledge exchange as being sufficient to instrument wholesale organisational change (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011; Rapp et al, 2014).

Challenger positions that loyalty is earned from successful knowledge sharing (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011). However, Gambetta (1988) articulates that loyalty is akin to maintaining trust – applicable to an individual, a group or an organisation – suggesting that the use of the term provides a convenient supposition for trust.

Trust is an iterative process over repeated selling interactions (Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Trust and commitment develop customers’ confidence in and their opinion of the salesperson, thus reinforcing credibility and unlocking information sharing; argument central to the Challenger knowledge-based selling approach for joint value co-creation (Gounaris and Tzempelikos, 2014; Smith and Barclay, 1997).

Insofar as Dixon and Adamson (2011) claim a relationship is not required for the Challenger approach to be applicable, by definition, they declare that trust is not required.

It seems that literature is split in whether or not trust is mandatory for Challenger to be theoretically applicable (Goad and Jaramillo, 2014; Rackham and De Vincentis, 1999; Rapp et al, 2014). This study aims to identify whether the trust constructs presented in the literature support the notion that Challenger can be applied without a pre-existing relationship, and whether there is any behavioural and cognitively suitable salesperson type that can successfully apply Challenger.

Research methodology

The researcher employed qualitative assessment of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with a non-probability, self-selected cross-sectional sample population of 20 “relevant persons” from a selection of UK multinational corporations with sector experience in any of the Standard Industrial Classification categories (GOV.UK, 2007).

Data was collected using telephone interviews adopting an inductive exploratory questioning method that produced nonnumerical data from which systematic thematic analysis was employed to deduce empirical reflections on the trust in selling phenomenon (Braun and Clarke, 2006; Cresswell, 2009; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Isaeva, Bachmann, Bristow, and Saunders, 2015).

To improve validity, all interviews were recorded electronically, transcribed verbatim and an interview memo was sent to all participants for review and comment, ensuring a thorough and accurate record of the findings was disclosed from participant interviews. This rigour reinforced the authenticity, credibility and reliability of the study phenomena being presented (Eriksson and Kovalainen, 2010; Guba and Lincoln, 1994).

Sample population
A sample frame was elected as four relevant purchasingpersons [Procurement Director, Managing Director, Finance Director, Operations Director] and three relevant sellingpersons [Sales Director, Key Account Manager, Business Development Manager] with a minimum ten years’ experience.

A relevant person is in the sample frame and either experienced in B2B selling or in purchasing decision-making having had direct exposure to trust in selling situations from which to personally reflect. Participants displayed professionalism when sharing their experiential insights rather than their “personal attitudes” (Pardo, Missirilian, Portier, and Salle, 2011 citing Kumar, Stern and Anderson, 1993, p1634), adding validity to the data (Cresswell, 2009).

Data collection method
Self-selected relevant persons were invited by direct email to participate in a telephone interview. Aside decreased cost and flexibility in location and privacy, telephone interviewing was selected as this provided convenience and privacy of location that further safeguarded participant anonymity. This also aimed to relax the participant and improve interviewer-to-participant rapport by removing visual prejudices that may influence the data interpretation.

Ethical considerations
Telephone interviewing afforded the participants anonymity and privacy with the opportunity to speak freely on essentially sensitive – or emotive – matters of trust, ethics and business conducts that some participants may not have contributed as fully in another interview method (Mealer and Jones, 2014).

Findings and discussion

Participants were asked to describe the purpose and value of the salesperson and offered a combination of 12 common opinions. Interestingly, both participant groups agreed that salesperson knowledge, building relationships and trust, adding value or providing the customer a competitive advantage, to increase business volume and provide a point of contact or business interface for customers to access the supplier organisation.

Synthesising the interviews with NVIVO thematic analysis software produced the initial thematic map (Figure 1) that describes the trust construct in a dyadic, buyer-seller relationship – and identifies components that diminsish trust – disclosing the underlying purpose of both parties achieving a trust-mutual, customer-oriented, value-adding, relational condition that promotes customer sponsorship and achieves customer loyalty evidenced through repeat purchases.

Figure 1: Thematic map.

Discussion on the relevant findings to each of these main themes follows:

Salesperson knowledge – When asked, all participants considered the main purpose and value of the salesperson is their need to be knowledgeable to gain credibility and develop customer relationships. This includes tacit knowledge of their own organisation, being empathetic of their customer’s business challenges and having extensive understanding of the industry they compete in. Complementing other research, customers value salespeople who take time to understand their business challenges and can intelligently listen and assimilate their needs into solutions. Drawing upon their industry expertise and experience to finesse information exchange, adapt their value proposition, and align relevant products and services can help develop their business and bring them a competitive advantage (Bateman and Valentine, 2015; Friend et al, 2018; Guenzi et al, 2016).

Knowledge of the customer organisation – There is agreement that, where a trusted salesperson uses their relationship to expand their network in a customer organisation, the cross-department knowledge they collect from inter-company leakage (1105MD) can be useful in helping their “corporate sponsor” to navigate their own organisation internally.

Seller-oriented behaviours are considered unethical when the customer’s need is not the central motivation. Reducing the customer’s unnecessary purchase duplication or identifying poor business practices enhances the customer’s ethical perception of the salesperson, so increasing their confidence and trust in the dyadic relationship (Bateman and Valentine, 2015; Crosby et al, 1990).

Knowledge of industry sector – Customers are largely self-sufficient in collecting publicly available information and forming decisions. To remain relevant, salespeople must bring new knowledge and discrete insights to customers to gain their attention and be regarded as an intelligent “thought leader” in their industry.

Participants commented that salespeople could build credibility by empathetically sharing insightful conversations of industry trends and answering the customer’s challenges. Customers consider this valuable external source of rich information a competitive advantage, which Hughes, et al (2011), reference as “competitive intelligence” (p 91) that requires strong intellect, a solid relationship and adaptive skills to assimilate, utilise and gain advantage from declarative knowledge (Hughes et al, 2013).

Lack of credibility – Participants commented that customers may perceive a lack of credibility where the salesperson does not demonstrate their knowledge and expertise and, especially where they make no effort to understand the customer’s business, the customer will unlikely consider the investment in time to develop a salesperson relationship as there is no perceived value created (Wood, Boles, Johnston, et al, 2008).

Salesperson credibility may be disadvantaged through opportunistic behaviours in the relationship, such as assuming to gain an influence by approaching higher authorities in the customer’s organisation, only to be redirected to the original customer contact. This lack of professional etiquette can test the customer’s confidence and stress the relationship; a perspective identified by Smith and Barclay (1997) wherein a temperate, measured, patient salesperson can be considered more trustworthy in the relationship.

Sales and Procurement both consider that the advantages of having a dyadic relationship are in open communications, knowledge exchange and delivering a consistent service; however, the relationship is not the central component in guaranteeing a purchase.

Salesperson’s reputation – Participants reflected that skilled, customer-focused salespeople who are well regarded can sufficiently make up for the organisation’s poor performance and maintain the organisation’s credibility – agreeing with a similar view of Doney and Cannon (1997) and Ganesan (1994) that, should the salesperson’s reputation be impinged, they will likely seek to represent an organisation better fitting their professional reputation, consequently attracting their customers to extend their loyalty to the salesperson and follow (Kumar, Sunder, and Leone, 2014; Palmatier, Scheer, and Steenkamp, 2007).

Organisational reputation – Participants offered that where the salesperson is unknown to the customer, the supplier organisation’s reputation – or brand trust (Rousseau et al, 1998) – can be extended to reinforce the salesperson’s credibility through reference examples of other customers gaining from the supplier’s core competences, such as access to technical expertise, insightful industry knowledge and projectmanagement capabilities.

Parallel to other research, it is agreed there may be a competitive advantage in customers having a relationship with an innovative organisation – irrespective of the organisation’s size – in accessing new technologies, knowledge, processes and technical expertise that complements their operations (Tzempelikos and Gounaris, 2015).

Reliability in communication – When asked, participants offered that other intrinsic behaviours such as customer focus (commitment), reliability in communication, delivers promises (consistency), and professionalism (preparedness) are contributors to building the customer’s holistic perception of value in a salesperson and their ongoing relationship.

Both participant groups aligned that salesperson honesty, openness and ethicality were conditional behaviours for reinforcing customer confidence – important traits demonstrated largely through communication effectiveness, including delivering “bad news”.

Listening and adapting the value proposition to the customer’s needs and the ability to communicate the value of commercial offerings in an empathetic, unforced conversational style are considered good communication that increases the customer’s confidence in choosing to listen to the salesperson.

Such is the pace of innovation and its impact on customer competitiveness, there is increasing demand from customers for suppliers to communicate complex information accurately and expediently. Salespeople require the cognitive aptitude to listen for and assimilate customer procedural knowledge during discussions and adapt to the customer’s evolving needs, thereby reinforcing the customer’s perception of salesperson value and commitment of time to forge a dyadic relationship with the salesperson (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011; Grönroos, 2008; Haas et al, 2012; Hakanen, 2014; Jelinek, 2017; B A Weitz et al, 1986).

Building trusted relationships – The adage “people buy from people” was mentioned several times by participants; this view may reflect how people naturally strive for a relationship and building trust over time is necessary to safeguard each other in their interactions, wherein the humanistic nature is that people are predisposed to help each other achieve success (Kang and Jindal, 2015; Nooteboom et al, 1997).

In contrast, when events occur that stress or compromise the customer’s trust perception, it is commented that the salesperson can rely on their strong trust-based customer relationship to “weather the storm” of organisational poor performance and may even strengthen the customer’s perceived trust through their adaptive skill and customer-focused approach (1106SG, personal communication, May 11, 2018).

Otherwise, it is suggested that prolonging the customer’s stress diminishes trust and salesperson confidence, a view that resonates with lack of credibility and subsequent loss of customer sponsorship for repeat business.

Interestingly, participant 2904AB specifically described the necessity for a “deep and meaningful relationship” (2904AB, personal communication, April 29, 2018) as unnecessary for commodity purchases; similarly Meehan and Wright (2013) report that customers do not differentiate the trust dynamics between strategic-partner relationships and transaction-specific relationships, perhaps reasoning that it is the delivering of professional customer service – from a professional organisation – that fundamentally cements a salesperson’s credibility and stimulates the repeat purchase, regardless of age or experience.

Controversially, the comments of the most experienced participant, 3105JD – supported by 2505AW – suggested there is limited understanding among salespeople as to why build customer relationships at all and questioning whether it is the relationship that guarantees a sale. This view strongly echoes the main theme of Challenger (Dixon, Adamson, 2011) – and supported by (Hohenschwert and Geiger, 2015) – that relationship selling is not effective in todays’ globally competitive marketplace.

Supplier dependency – Participant 1405IA describes the necessity to build a relationship especially where the customer is dependent on a supplier’s technology to safeguard exploitation and mutually manage the lifecycle of that technology installation. Interestingly, the findings of (Sako and Helper, 1998, p 407) reflect on the supplier’s ability to control customer opportunism through dependency and consequent loss of power in the relationship, possibly explaining the customer’s motivation for supply chain independence.

Trust takes time – There is little consideration of the length of time it takes to build trust in a relationship; participants simply reference that “trust is built over time” based on the salesperson’ reputation, bolstered by their commitment to the customer’s success, which develops into a trusted relationship. Interestingly, other research deduces that both trust and relationships take time to build and can substitute one another for time, so it may be accepted that trust can be formed quickly (Bejou et al, 1998; T. A. Kaski et al, 2017; McKnight and Chervany, 1998).

Brand reputation as trust – Brand reputation and salesperson credibility can be considered reflective, though not identical Corporate values described in policies and governance. The are manifested in the attitudes, behaviours and ethical approach of the salesperson as the representative of the brand and will act accordingly (Román and Juan Martín, 2014 citing Schwepker and Good (2011)).

Trust is diminished by unethical, pressuring, seller-oriented behaviours.

As well as a salesperson’s established reputation based on their credible behaviours, moral values and ethical conduct reflect positively to their organisation’s brand.

Furthermore, participants also suggested that, while smaller organisations may be more flexible in delivering the customer’s immediate needs, and may have an interesting technology, it may be preferable to contract with larger organisations that are perceived to be more secure – evidenced in their market longevity – and have the resources to continuously innovate and offer bespoke services.

Both participant groups emphasised the ability to exchange knowledge irrespective of supplier organisation size. In as much as larger organisations may be better resourced to deliver the promised outcome of an insightful conversation, a smaller organisation with specialist capabilities can also compete based on their tacit knowledge and exemplary reputation (Doney and Cannon, 1997).

Confidentiality – All participants were asked about the impact of trust on confidentiality. Participants agreed that confidentiality is fundamental in protecting organisational intellectual property and a demonstrable behaviour in developing and maintaining customer trust.

Breaches of trust are suggested as basal precursors to diminishing trust (Nooteboom et al, 1997), wherein the customer will start to withdraw information and knowledge that the salesperson previously found insightful and valuable in its extended use internally in the supplier organisation. As the salesperson loses credibility, it is suggested the relationship erodes.

Likewise, the reciprocal expectation is that confidential information that salespeople share with customers is also respected also (1106SG).

Rapport – Rapport makes it easier for the customer and salesperson to connect, reinforcing the relationship communication and positively affecting repeat purchase likelihood (Paul et al, 2009). Aligning with research by Paul et al (2009) which reasons that there are several customer behaviours for repeat purchase, this research finding offers strong emphasis on the emotional aspects of vendor selection aside decision-making being only a calculative process (Newell et al, 2011). According to Kaski (2017), salespeople need to develop empathetic customer focus when building rapport, which is demanding on the senses, energy consuming and intellectually challenging, which suggests a high degree of emotional intelligence is required to be effective (T Kaski, 2017).

Trusted advisor – With knowledge-based credibility, a reputation of consistency and benevolent customer motivation demonstrated through their trusted relationship, a salesperson may be considered a “trusted advisor” who is invited to consult with and contest the customer’s business perspectives by educating and helping the customer develop new profitable business.

Comments made by participant 1105AS parallels with findings of Hakanen (2014), which consider that Purchasing Departments may not have the skill to understand creative commercial business proposals and would need to depend on the trusted supplier to guide them through the value proposition in an ethical manner.

Salesperson demographic – When questioned, participants’ responses were mixed with respect to the age difference between a young graduate salesperson approaching a mature Executive customer. That said, there is confidence that, with thorough preparation and professional attitude, there is no reason that demographic differences should be an issue – even it is reported that Millennials may find the intergenerational divide an opportunity to impress themselves and their skill to the customer (Pullins, Mallin, Buehrer, and Jones, 2011). Other than where human biases or prejudices are present – or “first impressions” – the human predisposition is to trust another regardless (Friend et al, 2018; Gulati, 1995; Wood, Boles, and Babin, 2008).

Diminishing trust – Trust is diminished by unethical, pressuring, seller-oriented behaviours, where financial incentives and Sales Management target-driven behaviour is perhaps causal in salespeople demonstrating overtly pushy or opportunistic selling attitudes.

This perception of the selfish salesperson “out for a sale” also reasons that zero procurement participants considered the salesperson purpose to be an Influencer, since not showing primary consideration for the customer’s business insists lack of credibility and trustworthiness (Doney and Cannon, 1997).

Paltering – Participants aligned that paltering (the active use of selective truthful statements to mislead) was intolerable to trust building, which can have an immediate and irreparably negative effect on relationships. Quantitative research by Rogers, et al (2017) reports paltering to be an immoral form of deception that absolutely echoes selfish behaviour, wherein the organisation may have policies to safeguard damage to their brand reputation from this irresponsible salesperson behaviour (Rogers, Zeckhauser, Gino, Norton, and Schweitzer, 2017).

Salesperson’s professionalism – Salespeople represent their organisation through their professional attitudes – or “doing the basics” – and in motivating the supplier organisation to perform is very much considered a salesperson’s core value to the customer. Both participant groups agreed that “delivering promises” was an important salesperson deliverable required for cementing credibility and building customer confidence.

Intrinsic value is described as a benefit derived from resources belonging to one party that can be captured by another party even if a relationship is “non-collaborative” (Tescari and Ledur Brito, 2016, p 485). That value can be considered to be anything the customer chooses; it is in delivering this perceived value that the customer builds confidence in the salesperson – a precursor to trust (Román and Iacobucci, 2010).

Increase business volume through repeat business – Sales participants identified that a core aim of the salesperson is to generate profitable business through their relationships. Ideally, repeat business may be a measure of success where the salesperson builds their reputation through the continued consistent delivery of service and value to their customer.

While the salesperson’s aim is for repeat customer purchase, extending the relationship may fundamentally remain the customer’s decision in their recognising value in the salesperson and the supplier organisation essentially as a “means to an end” in gaining a market competitive advantage (Gutman, 1982; Paul et al, 2009).

Salespeople sell – Participant (2205JHa) supports this notion that salespeople must remember it is “honest and authentic” sales practice to “sell” to a customer with a need. Two experienced procurement participants – 1005MB and 1506FO – echoed this in their acceptance for salespeople to drive the purchase process, since this demonstrates passion and confidence in bringing the customer the prescribed advantage. Where a dyadic relationship has mutual appreciation of each other’s needs, trust may develop into loyalty and dependency, gracing salespeople with the opportunity to “sell” to a willing customer open to engage in influencing dialogue (Meehan and Wright, 2013).

The attractiveness to collaborate in joint sponsorship increases to drive sustainable repeat business and value-add services, governed by a combined entrepreneurial purpose that generates mutual competitive advantages to both organisations (Aminoff and Tanskanen, 2013; Pulles, Schiele, Veldman, and Hüttinger, 2016; Wilson and Millman, 2003).

Internal sponsor – Interestingly, procurement participants felt it valuable to have the salesperson as a trusted point of contact who is skilful in navigating and motivating their own organisation to deliver consistently, such that both salesperson and supplier organisation reputations are reinforced. Participant 1105AS speaks of salesperson “pedigree” and describes that a level of seniority is expected in the account team who can support younger sales members. A position aligned with Cuevas, et al (2015), outlining that before organisational partnership can be considered, it is essential to establish individual-level boundary-spanning relationships that mobilise vertical decision-makers across the organisations to agree mutual business development strategies. This highlights the role of the experienced KAM as a potentially successful Challenger Sponsor (Gounaris and Tzempelikos, 2014), having greater customer empathy and being more culturally cognisant than other sales functions (Davies and Ryals, 2013).

Theoretical contribution

Giving due consideration to the findings, the salesperson’s main aim is to achieve repeat purchases from existing customers by delivering consistent performance that provides customers a reason to continue to engage the salesperson and supplier organisation.

The customer’s objective is to continue to receive perceived value from reliable, trusted salespeople.

There would appear to be three inter-related constructs to support this notion:

  1. Value can be identified as anything the customer perceives to be valuable – an independent, temporal variable to Sponsorship (Cresswell, 2009).
  2. Sponsorship may be where dyadic individuals establish trusted relationships and collaboratively sponsor mutually agreed business aims and personal goals – a dependent variable on Value moderated by Trust.
  3. Trust is a phenomenon, the magnitude of which may moderate Value to Sponsorship. Annette Baier (Baier, 1986) elegantly describes the nuance of trust and distrust, insisting on the phenomenological importance of trust in influencing relational outcomes, confronting the Challenger premise further (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011).

The volume of trust directly impacts the sustainability of sponsorship in that, if trust – or loyalty – is not diligently maintained, it is unlikely a customer will extend their vulnerability or reputation to support the salesperson relationship, dissolving the relationship and potential for repeat purchase.

Responding to Vanneste (2016) – though perhaps ambitious – this research may contribute to advancing the notion that dyadic corporate “sponsorship” as a construct may align with Pillai (2003) and provide extension to the Enterprise Selling premise (Rackham and DeVincentis, 1999) in evolving the sales relationship process in elevating the mutual achievement of each organisation’s goals through collaboration by ultimately grounding the customer’s loyalty through perfection in salesperson service and organisational innovation (Vanneste, 2016).

The conceptual model in Figure 2 presents a parsimonious approach to theoretically explain the dynamic, omnipotent nature of trust in selling, proposing a continuation of this study combining a quantitative evaluation in a mixed-methods analysis.

Figure 2: Conceptual model.


This research aims to generate greater understanding of the social construction of trust phenomena in B2B selling. It shines a light on the Challenger Selling approach and its validity as a robust selling method, exploring whether the trust constructs presented in the literature support the notion that Challenger can be applied without a pre-existing relationship or dyadic trust and whether the supplier organisation’s brand reputation influences the applicability of the Challenger approach.

The thematic map shown in Figures 3 illustrates the flow of trust in a dyadic relationship defined from the initial thematic map and supports the following conclusions:

Figure 3: Defined themes.

Both participant groups – Sales and Procurement – consider that the advantages of having a dyadic relationship are in open communications, knowledge exchange and delivering a consistent service. However, the relationship is not the central component in guaranteeing a purchase, agreeing with the position proposed by the Challenger Selling approach (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011) and supported by participant 3105JD (3105JD, personal communication, May 31, 2018).

Interestingly, participants collectively separate knowledge and relationship. Knowledge can be a component that contributes to salesperson credibility and consequently customer confidence, whereas relationship may be considered a construct that is mutually decided based on credibility and reputation of consistently delivering performance over time, which forms trust. This finding contributes to the Challenger Selling approach (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011) in that, while knowledge is agreed to be important in establishing the salesperson’s credibility, it also reinforces that the formalised relationship is not required initially to gain the customer’s attention and advance a conversation.

Lack of trustworthy behaviour
Irrespective of the relationship, participants aligned that untrustworthy behaviours can cause relationships to break down at any time, potentially reducing the opportunity for repeat purchases. Likewise, unethical purchasing practices may cause the salesperson to reconsider their customer relationship and withdraw insightful knowledge sharing that previously provided the customer a recognisable competitive advantage (Hughes et al, 2013).

Relationships simultaneously increase dependency between both parties, so to protect their vulnerability (Gao et al, 2005; Gundlach and Cannon, 2010) the customer may base this decision on their perception of the salesperson’s commitment plus evidence of the supplier organisation’s customer priority, which collectively act as antecedents to trust and, over the long-term, develop into a trust-based advocacy or sponsorship.

Contrarily, this research found that trusted relationships are deemed necessary to (Aarikka-Stenroos and Jaakkola, 2012; Grönroos, 2008) sustain longer-term repeat purchases from the same customer, though it may be the customer’s choice to initiate a dyadic relationship due primarily to the perceived consequential competitive advantage, aligning with prior KIBS (knowledge-intensive business services) research wherein knowledge-sharing may be advantageous for relationship building, and further supporting the main premise of the Challenger approach (M Dixon and Adamson, 2011).

The data suggest that trust is formed over time based on the customer’s perception of the salesperson’s value – identified as anything the customer chooses to be valuable – and their long-term loyalty in contributing to the customer’s business aims and personal goals. Reflectively, the salesperson’s objective from a relationship is to achieve long-term repeat business through the tailoring of business solutions that complement the supplier organisation’s core competencies (Grönroos, 2008; Vargo and Lusch, 2004; Verbeke et al, 2011) and which may ultimately reduce operational costs of sales (Tzempelikos and Gounaris, 2015).

A “value saturation” point may occur for customers if supplier innovation slows, making repeat purchases transactional over time. Nevertheless, with an established relationship manifest as dyadic loyalty – or “super trust” (1105IA) akin to a loyal marriage – there is value in even transactional relationships where the dyad operates to answer each other’s needs naturally, making repeat purchases seamless and repetitive (Palmatier et al, 2007; Pulles et al, 2016).

Finally, this research provides commentary to the Challenger selling approach of Dixon and Adamson (2011) in that, where it may be agreed that a pre-existing relationship or trust is not essential to influence a transaction, rather that salesperson’s knowledge, credibility and organisational reputation are offered as “fundamental prerequisites” in positive vendor selection.

Managerial implications
This research offers that customers expect to work with ethical, reputable organisations and salespeople, so choose to invest time in building relationships with likeminded salespeople with whom they find rapport and can exchange knowledge to mutually advance business goals with the security of organisational governance.

This study shows that customer confidence builds trust over time, which develops into a relationship that provides a competitive advantage for both customer and salesperson. To this, there is value and a tangibility in trust such that customers who perceive the salesperson – or the supplier organisation – to behave opportunistically shall diminish their potential to build the customer’s confidence and consequent trust.

It is further suggested that sales managers recognise the currency and value of trustworthiness and act as role models for their salespeople, emulating ethical business conduct to reinforce the organisational brand values that customers largely identify with.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that different behaviours, skills and competences exist between the key account management function and the atypical salesperson role (Guenzi, Pardo, and Georges, 2007) and, where the Challenger approach may better pertain to the KAM skillset, such identification may be of interest for sales management in redefining sales incentivisation to reduce the pressure burden of having to “make a sale” – which can increase customer stress to the detriment of potential sponsorship and repeat purchases. Suggestions may include aligning “Customer Team” targets with organisational objectives and achievements and increasing the professionalism and ethical conduct of customer-facing representatives.